Many people give up on the idea of getting in shape—and particularly building muscle—after the age of 50. This is a shame, because aesthetics aside, maintaining muscle and strength is incredibly important as we get older.
I’m over 50, and maintaining and building muscle remains very important to me for numerous health reasons. But to be quite honest, I also want to continue to feel young and vibrant and to do the same activities I did in my 20s. And for the most part, I still do. All of this helps drive my warrior spirit and also improves my self-image and determination not only physically, but in all aspects of my life.
Use It or Lose It
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “use it or lose it.” Well, when it comes to muscle, no truer words can be spoken. After the age of 40, muscle mass naturally starts to deteriorate at a rate of about 1 percent per year. By age 50, the decline accelerates at an even faster pace. By the time you reach your 60s and 70s, you stand to lose well over half of your muscle mass, especially if you didn’t have much to begin with!
Without “intervention” (meaning consistent weight training, resistance training, or any other muscle-building exercise), many older people develop sarcopenia—the age-related decrease of muscle mass that is largely accompanied by reduced mobility, slower gait, poor physical endurance, and overall frailty. These characteristics often snowball into much larger health issues associated with a lack of physical activity, including bone loss (osteopenia) and osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, and blood sugar imbalances such as metabolic syndrome and diabetes. Many people don’t realize that muscle is active metabolic tissue. It constantly consumes energy in the form of glucose, which helps regulate blood sugar and prevent or control diabetes.
Building and preserving muscle mass is one of the best things you can do to ensure an active lifestyle well into your later years. I speak from experience. Personally, I’m more active than ever. I regularly mix in bodyweight exercises like pushups, sit-ups, and lunges during my hour-long hill-walking routines during the workweek. On alternate days I lift weights, and on weekends I challenge my body in an entirely different way by doing yoga, which activates large and small muscle groups I can’t really target with weight lifting. As a result, I feel vibrant, energetic, and far younger than my years. I’m not sure I have been in better shape since I was a college athlete. I’m confident that my active lifestyle will allow me live a passionate, independent, energetic life for decades to come.
What to Do
Starting a workout routine, particularly one that includes strength training, can seem daunting. But it doesn’t have to be.
The first thing to remember is you don’t need to lift heavy dumbbells or barbells. You can start with 5-lb hand weights and move up from there. (Even unopened soup cans or half-full milk jugs make great “beginner” weights.) And contrary to what most people believe, you don’t have to lift extremely heavy weights to increase muscle mass. You can still do it by using light or medium weights—the trick is to do more sets and repetitions until you reach exhaustion. As an older adult, all of my resistant training workouts consist of low weights at high repetitions.
If free weights or barbells don’t appeal to you, try resistance bands. They allow you to keep constant tension, which works the muscle harder (even though it may not feel like it at the time).
Finally, you can boost muscle mass the “old fashioned” way, by doing bodyweight exercises. In addition to pushups, sit-ups, and lunges, try air squats, wall sits, and calf raises for your legs; planks, flutter kicks, and Russian twists for your core; and tricep dips and arm circles for your arms and shoulders. If you Google “bodyweight exercises,” you will find countless others you can try, along with instructional images or videos.
What to Eat
Also remember that no matter what your age, muscles must be fed properly in order for them to grow. And there’s no better food for muscle tissue than protein.
Generally speaking, you should consume approximately 0.7 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. So if you weigh 150 pounds, that would be 150 x 0.7—105 grams of protein a day. (One ounce is almost 30 grams, so 105 grams of protein is still just 3 and ¾ ounces.)
Some excellent protein sources include fish such as salmon, trout, and mackerel; chicken, pork, and red meat; eggs; milk and other dairy products such as Greek yogurt and cottage cheese; and some grains such as quinoa, buckwheat, and amaranth.
I personally also supplement with whey, which is one of the proteins found in dairy. I use it in a smoothie or shake, but you can also sprinkle it on top of foods such as oatmeal or yogurt.
Remember, when you’re in your 50s and 60s, the goal is not necessarily to develop six-pack abs. (Although you may, and plenty of people do!) Your objective should be to achieve the best health and vibrancy possible as you get older, and boosting your strength and muscle mass is one of the most effective ways to do that.